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Freediving with the Billfish of Panama
Copyright 1999 Terry Maas, BlueWater Freedivers


A 200-pound blue marlin stalks the blue waters off Panama 

"Fin up!," yelled our deckhand Bobby. With a hurried glance, my dive buddy Jim Mabry confirmed that a Pacific sailfish was indeed slashing at the bonito belly we trolled behind the boat. I threw on my mask, reached for my camera as Jim activated the strobe, and in a single motion yelled "now!" and slid over the side. As our captain Tom Yust slammed the big Bertram into neutral, I strained to see the fish through the bubbles that I knew had to be there.

There it is, a long graceful sailfish. It’s dark-colored, indicating that it’s excited. With its sail unfurled, it’s chomping the hookless teaser inches from my face. Almost vertical in the water, it keeps grabbing the bait and shaking its head, much like a determined alley dog fighting over a scrap.

In the few seconds it takes to get the bubbles cleared from my lens and aim for a shot, I glimpse two more sailfish. One is light in color circling 20 feet away and yet another is rolling frantically like a log rushing down stream, 15 feet below the boat—it’s tangled in two of our trolling lines—and it’s scared. Suddenly, it breaks free and in its panic is slices the water just feet away as it leaps free into the air.

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Too many potential swords ready to pierce my body. The sun is low, the visibility is deteriorating and the water is getting that black look. It’s a good time to quit. "Get me out of here!" I yell. And so ended our 5-day odyssey in the blue waters off Coiba Island, Panama.

Jim and I traveled to Panama for some billfish pictures and a chance to dive for big tuna on the famed Hannibal Bank. It took us a day-and-a-half to travel from Los Angeles to Coiba Island. Big plane in LA—pay $240 for extra gear; small plane in Panama City—we have to break our gear out and sit on it—and finally land on Coiba Island. Now, something that the brochures don’t tell you is that Coiba is a prison island. About the size of Catalina, it houses 300 prisoners and half as many guards.

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The waters around Coiba Island gained a bad reputation among native Panamanians because of its "sharks." It seems escaping prisoners never made it to shore. The island once housed over 1,000 inmates. To keep the prisoners from attempting escape into the jungle, hunter-killer squads—the sharks—used to search the jungles for escapees and execute them on the spot. We’re glad that our house is one island away—on Coibta.

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Hannibal Bank, a huge undersea plateau 200 feet deep, lies just 7 miles off the coast of Coiba. Because of the strong currents and large tides in the area, the water is often off-color but very fecund as schools of bait and predators abound. In the afternoon, schools of marauding yellowfin tuna bust up bait balls as dolphin and birds point the way. A large south swell from some mighty disturbance in the Southern hemisphere sent 20-foot swells through the area. The high seas coupled with the high tides of a full moon caused the waters on the bank to be green and unsuitable for hunting.

Captain Yust searched the seas outside the bank for some blue water. At Montosa Island, about 40 miles out, we found clear water. Along the way, we’d spot dozens of basking green turtles and as many yellow-black sea snakes. Jim and I jumped in to film them. The turtles were friendly. The snakes just wanted to be left alone. When we cornered them between us, we learned that these poisonous snakes could change their swimming direction instantly and in the opposite direction. With a change in undulation pattern, suddenly the back end became the front as they reversed gears inches from our faces.

Our method to find billfish was to troll 4 hookless teasers behind the boat. Bobby expertly converted the bellies of small bonito into enticing lures that flapped and released fish smell. After an average of 2-3 hours, a fish would rise to the bait and whack it with its bill. We soon perfected the method of rapid entry into the water when the fish was still hot. Frequently, the sailfish hunted in pairs—one dark in color, the other almost white.

The trick was to take pictures and video rapidly in the minute or so that the fish hung around the boat still interested in the bait. When they lost interest and started a gentle glide into the depths, we’d signal Tom to start the engines and circle back. Often the fish would regain interest and follow the bait again. Making a dive just as the boat was along side, allowed us to intercept the feeding fish.

The biggest fish I jumped was a 400-pound blue marlin. It quickly lost interest as I approached so I signaled for a go-around. After the boat passed overhead and as the bubbles cleared, I was treated to the huge fish in hot pursuit of the trolled lure. Unfortunately, the captain did not realize the fish was following the bait and drove on by leaving me one short chance to shoot the fish as it sped by.

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We spent one night in the questionable lee of Montosa. We arrived at dusk to anchor next to a boat of commercial freedivers. The 22-foot panga-like boat housed 8 teenage divers. Recruited by more experienced divers, these young men dove all day in the 87-degree water without a wetsuit in quest of shells, lobster and fish. They were thrilled as Bobby presented them with three cigarettes. At nightfall, they covered every inch of the hull with their sleeping bodies. No light, no music—just the sleep of the exhausted. They would repeat their regimen of non-stop freediving for a week before returning to shore. You don’t see any old freedivers; they become captains and recruit more young for profit.

We found Tom’s crew and the people of Panama to be a delight. The nights are balmy and there doesn’t seem to be a problem with the wind—the most frequent wrecker of blue water trips. Tom has seen rivers of sea snakes, hundreds of marlin, sailfish and tuna. He described a huge school of 200-pound tuna snacking on a garage-sized ball of tiny box fish. When he jumped over the side, he saw huge tuna milling around picking off strays. When we parted, Tom uttered the all-too-familiar phrase, "Should have been here last week.." Jim and I will be back.


Copyright 1999 Terry Maas, BlueWater Freedivers